My dear Jewish friend 11: Forms of Identification and Responsibility

Preparing for an upcoming lesson I had dug out my seasoned passport. My thumb ran over the rounded edges and the large white registering sticker of my visa that was placed over the federal eagle and had almost been rubbed off. The many travels I had made with this faithful companion had given this important document a soft appearance.

For the upcoming week I was asked to be part of a role play to help my police cadets prepare for a standard situation: I would play a passenger, who needs to identify herself to the authorities while traveling. „Pretty straight forward“, I quietly said to myself. I love being part of these vital practises as they help our young trainees to grow into their new, responsible role as representatives of the German government. But this practise would have a different, very deep meaning as it the responsibility growing from its day to day practise at German airports, train stations and borders was rooted in the darkness of the German past.

How many times had I taken for granted that I would not be in danger when handing my passport to an immigration officer? I can’t recall how often I had presented it while travelling from the United States to Germany and back. My German passport comes along with a lot of privileges citizens of other countries do not have. According to the Henley Passport Index it is listed on 3rd place worldwide for visa-free travel. Whenever I was holding this small, but powerful form of identification in my hand, I always felt secure when handing it over.

But there have been times in Germany, when certain forms of identification haven’t been a protection, but an endangerment for those holding them. Inge Auerbacher, who is a Holocaust survivor and whom I was honoured to meet in New York, knows through hurtful experience. Just a few weeks ago I stood with in front of an exhibition about „Kennkarten“ at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin as tears rolled down my cheeks. It was exactly on the day when Inge had left Germany. This day was marked by authorities in red letters across her German identification card, which was back then called „Kennkarte“.

(Picture right : by the courtesy of Inge Auerbacher)

The „Kennkarte“ was the basic identity document, which was used during the Third Reich. The murderous regime quickly used this form of identification as a weapon of control and fear. Unfortunately, Germany back then had been very efficient in the layout of bureaucracy. Letters on the outside of the „Kennkarte“ were introduced to mark each ethnicity – J for Jews, U for Ukrainians, R for Russians, W for Belarusians, K for Georgians, G for Goralenvolk, Z for Roma and Sinti.

I can’t possibly imagine what kind of fear it must have evoked as a person with such a letter had to produce their ID to an officer. After seeing Inge´s Kennkarte I will never ever take such freedom for granted. Encountering her story, took my teaching at the Federal Police to a deeper level. As long as I am allowed to, I will talk with my cadets about their responsibility to be guards of democracy and human worth. Back then, the police force was a terrible accomplice of the murderous Nazi regime enabling fear and becoming an instrument of its terror. Today, as long as I am permitted to teach, I will tell the stories of hurt, loss and disaster to help the young police officers to remember this terrible time in Germany and become a vital part of resistance against any form of exclusion, dictatorship and executive terror.

I sighed deeply as I slid my passport into my bag. What a privilege and responsibility. Maybe this is one of the reasons I was called back to Germany: that we remember these horrible times and stay committed to democracy and justice so people feel safe as they enter and life Germany.

The New Colossus revised

Four years ago we chose the US as our new home and left Germany. Our four kids were uprooted, family and friends left behind as we felt drawn to become part of the US as the largest immigrant nation of this world. What brought us here was not fleeing from a high crime rate in our homelands or to seek riches for ourselves, but the spirit of freedom, opportunity and equality we felt drawn to like many others, who are seeking a new life in this multinational  and -ethnic nation.

But the tide is turning quickly as this nation seems to undergo a massive political shift. While Germany learning from its Nazi history tried to become a welcoming nation during the 2015 refugee crisis, the US is closing its borders with its leader tweeting about rising criminality in Germany. If only one might check the facts! The criminality rate has gone down by 9.6 % and Germany is heavily trying to integrate the welcomed refugees.

What has happened to the Great Nation we sought as our new home only four years ago? The history of Germany teaches us wisely: We once had borders closed. Our leaders circulated fake facts. People were demised and humiliated, spat on because of their skin color and religion. Children ripped out of the hands of their parents, separated and traumatised. The Nazi regime orchestrating this and other uncountable evils lead to the greatest disaster of humanity. It is a very dangerous path to go down.

A lament of rewriting Emma Lazarus famous poem is the only thing that can slip from my lips as I look at the Statue of Liberty on the shores of New York.

„Hold back, ancient lands, your worried masses!“ cries she
With bitter thin lips. „Give me your money, your knowledge,
Your small numbers of rich yearning to act free,

The white upper class of your fruitless shore.
Send these, the powerful, richly abundant to me:
I lift my lamp only for them beside the golden door.“

If Miss Liberty would be able to move… the torch in her hand would fall out of her grip as she witnesses the destruction of the great American vision of freedom, opportunity and equality for all. The only thing she can do is silently weep in the captivity of her congealment.

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